A Compendium of the Vajrayana
To someone who is adept in the philosophy and practice of the three vehicles of Buddhism, and also good at comparing and contrasting their respective views, tantra and sutra not only do not contradict, but rather complement each another. Although sutra casually touches upon the view that all phenomena are innately perfect and pure, it does not provide any corresponding method for practice. Tantra, on the other hand, expounds this view in depth and offers specific practice thereof.
Vajrayana is also known as Secret Mantra or Esoteric Buddhism. To understand the supposed secret nature of Vajrayana, several explanations can be found in the Guhyagarbha Tantra. That is to say, the secrecy attached to this particular vehicle can be understood from two, three, or four different aspects. They are all correct explanations, just a matter of being broad or brief.
One of the simpler explanations is given from two aspects. One, something is hidden from the public eye. Two, something is kept secret. What is the difference between the two? In the latter, a deliberate action is taken to hide something from others; in the former, no action is required. It is naturally hidden, like the mineral deposits buried under the ground or the sea.
What is hidden? It is tathāgatagarbha. The Buddha did not hide it from us, nor did anyone else. Instead, it is our innate ignorance and defilements that prevent us from knowing its existence. Although tathāgatagarbha has always been with us since our eight consciousnesses were formed, we do not see it. In fact, sentient beings in this boundless universe are basically not aware of this naturally hidden state.
What has to be kept secret? Actually, there is nothing in Vajrayana that is shameful or inappropriate and cannot be told. Rather, it is the profound and uncommon view of Vajrayana, such as the equality of defilement (klesa) and wisdom (bodhi), samsara and nirvana, sentient beings and the enlightened, etc., that needs to be kept confidential. If not, many people may end up with a mistaken view of Vajrayana because they cannot comprehend the concepts.
Most Buddhists accept that presently we are just ordinary sentient beings, not yet awakened; the world is, exactly as we see it, defiled and impure; afflictions are bad and always the opposite of enlightenment. Nevertheless, through long-term practice of the Buddhadharma, the impure can be transformed into the pure, the mundane world into pure land, afflictions into the wisdom of the buddha, an ordinary person into a bodhisattva of the first bhumi, then the second bhumi, the third ...., and finally a buddha.
No Buddhist, not even the followers of Theravada, will refute this theory. However, if one were to say to them indiscreetly that defilement and wisdom, sentient beings and buddha are one and the same, the great majority would be extremely puzzled—if afflictions were the same as wisdom, why should one obliterate greed or hatred when it arises? If sentient beings were buddhas, by extension, sentient beings in the hell realm would be buddhas as well. How could buddhas end up in the hell realm? If samsara were no different from nirvana, it would render the ultimate liberation that we strive to attain meaningless. Many questions of this kind would be raised since the concepts are profound and difficult to understand. But this is not the worst consequence. People in general have a lot of pride and tend to flatly reject different ideas that challenge their own. By voicing refutation of a valid Buddhist view, one runs the risk of producing negative karma of speech and unwittingly adopting a wrong view at the same time.
Therefore, in order to protect those with a propensity to follow the Buddhist sutric system or those who reject Buddhism entirely, Vajrayana cannot but take measures to prevent them from hearing some of its more advanced viewpoints prematurely. The intention is to guide them gradually to higher levels of understanding once they have the necessary capacity.
First, they need to understand the doctrines that samsara is unsatisfactory, human birth is rare and precious, and so on. Next, after they have made some progress, it must be pointed out to them despite the appearance of the phenomenal world, the self or “I” has in fact no inherent existence. One can be attached to everything else, but never to an inherently existing self. When the idea of not-self is fully comprehended, they can then be led to the next level—if the self does not exist, other things may not exist either because there is no reason for them to exist.
When their ability to reason is stronger and their capacity more mature, it is possible that, through training in the Madhyamaka methods, they will gradually discover nothing really exists; the truth of emptiness—empty of the self of person and of phenomena—may be realized all of a sudden, that is, although the eyes can see the world outside, all manifestations are without self-nature, not substantial. Following this approach, they may eventually gain insight into the inseparability of phenomena and emptiness. Thereafter, they should be told although their prior view is very good, there is still one defect. The nature of mind is in fact a thing called luminosity or clear light; that luminosity and the emptiness which they have already established are not contradictory. It is just that the idea of luminosity has been overlooked.
From this point on, the sutric teachings are less precise. To the questions of what luminosity signifies or how to attain the luminous state, sutra appears unable to offer satisfactory answers. Tantra, on the other hand, explains this clearly, leaving no doubt as to the meaning, the function of luminosity, and the way to attain it.
However, tantra must be learned step by step. In fact, one is forbidden to hear tantric teachings casually, that is, without any prior knowledge of and training in the fundamental Buddhist view, lest one should misunderstand and form the wrong notions about Vajrayana. Although the wrong view cannot do any real harm to Vajrayana, many listeners may thus be misled and inadvertently become victims of such a mistake. In order to prevent them from creating any negative karma and to protect their roots of merit, transmission of tantric teachings must be given with great caution, only when the timing and the conditions are right and the listeners are receptive to the teachings on hand.
Just as first graders cannot be taught college courses, practitioners of Vajrayana, especially the nine vehicles of the Nyingma school, must be guided on the path one step at a time. But this is only meant for people of ordinary capacity. Those with especially sharp faculty—who practiced Vajrayana or even attained certain accomplishment in previous lives and thus have inborn faith in the teachings—may easily grasp the essential points set forth in Vajrayana upon hearing them, all without any prior training in subjects such as Madhyamaka or the like.
Actually, the view of emptiness—empty of the self of person and of phenomena—should not be disclosed to the public either. Between the two, the requirement for spreading the idea of no self of person is not as stringent; it is quite a different matter for the other. When expounding the notion of all phenomena being empty, devoid of inherently existing self-nature, it is absolutely necessary to choose the right time and place and to evaluate the audience’s ability to accept this uncommon view. One may otherwise run the risk of violating the bodhisattva vows.
Unfortunately, some Buddhists as well as others of different faiths tend to condemn Vajrayana openly for its need to keep certain views secret. This is not right. Even non-tantric Mahayana upholds confidentiality in the doctrine of emptiness. Does it mean the doctrine is flawed? Of course not. The Buddha promulgated his teachings in order to deliver sentient beings from all suffering, not to flaunt his own importance or unsurpassed wisdom, irrespective of the suitable time, place, and audience. So an orderly transmission of the Dharma is of particular importance in Buddhism.
The same principle also applies to bodhicitta. According to Asanga, bodhicitta is divided into aspiration bodhicitta and application bodhicitta. In tonglen, one of the practices of application bodhicitta, one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others and giving merit and happiness to all sentient beings. If this teaching is given causally without taking into consideration the disposition of the audience, many people may think the practice is unreasonable and Buddhism is too extreme. Unable to understand the logic behind it, they may be even more reluctant to learn. Not that it is a problem if people choose not to learn Buddhism, but the consequences can be serious if they malign Buddhism because they think the doctrine is unreasonable. Therefore, application bodhicitta should not be revealed to someone who is not a vessel of Dharma either; it doesn’t mean there is anything dirty about application bodhicitta.
In general, the more profound the idea is, the more difficult it is to understand. The Buddha therefore said the more advanced teachings must not be told rashly when the right conditions are missing; however, with the right conditions, they cannot be withheld and must be propagated.
The Sanskrit word mantra, in Secret Mantra, is derived from the root man—“to think,” which is related to our mind, and the suffix tra—“to save or rescue.” The verse “to save sentient beings from suffering” in Dharmadhatustava also has this meaning, that is, to relieve sentient beings swiftly and successfully by way of two different methods. Sutra also aims to alleviate our afflictions, but tantra can accomplish the same more efficiently. Hence, Vajrayana is also referred to as Mantrayana.
We generally think of a mantra as something we recite, such as the mantra of Vajrasattva, but this is just one of its many meanings. Actually, the tantric view, conduct, and practice are all included in the mantra because they can all free us from our afflictions.
A general picture of Vajrayana can be illustrated in terms of ground, path, and fruition, but I think an explanation of its view, practice, conduct, and fruition would be more appropriate and comprehensible, also easier to remember. This brief introduction to Vajrayana covers primarily those essentials that beginners of Vajrayana are receptive to.
On the topic of emptiness, I have said before that emptiness is a Vajrayana view; on tathāgatagarbha, I have also said it is a Vajrayana view. The fact is that the true Vajrayana view combines emptiness (in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma) and luminosity of tathāgatagarbha, or luminous mind (in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma); they are indivisible.
Generally speaking, when sutra espouses the subject of tathāgatagarbha, the two concepts are not explained as a perfect union. The concept of emptiness was the key teaching in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, whereas luminosity was hardly mentioned then. Even if the word luminosity was brought up, its interpretation was the same as emptiness. The third turning of the wheel of Dharma only focused on the luminous mind, very little on emptiness. Although sutra also acknowledges the indivisibility of emptiness and tathāgatagarbha, it does not think it necessary to repeat emptiness again when dealing with the subject of tathāgatagarbha, just like the textbooks used in elementary school are not reused after one graduates from elementary school. Similarly, the teachings of the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, such as precious human birth, impermanence, causality, etc., hardly appeared in the second turning. Not that the earlier teachings were no longer valid, they were just not repeated.
Unfortunately, nothing in the literature of sutra seeks to integrate the concept of emptiness and luminosity. Tantra, as explained in the fifth chapter of the Beacon of Certainty, emphasizes neither emptiness nor luminosity but combines the two concepts.
Although sutra mentions luminosity as well, it offers no practice other than the practice of emptiness in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma. The past masters indicated as such; this is also a fact we can discern from any sutric scripture.
What is missing in sutra is expounded in full detail in tantra. Tantra provides many comprehensive practices not only on emptiness but also on the union of appearance and emptiness, i.e., the practice of luminosity. These are not at all available in sutra. In addition, the practice of pure perception is essential to tantric practice, but not found in sutra either.
What is the practice of pure perception? Sutra acknowledges that one begins to see the reality of the surrounding world, a world of pure displays, when one attains realization of the eighth-bhumi bodhisattva. However, it offers no specific method for reaching this state; pure perception will naturally manifest only after undertaking the sutric practice for a very long time. Therefore, to achieve pure perception in the sutric system is a slow process.
In most of the literature of sutra, our world, the Saha world, is deemed an utterly impure place. But that is not the case in tantra. In the tantric view, this illusory world that we see today is innately pure; it is just that we have never seen its true nature—vacuous, luminous, and also pure. It is what the bodhisattvas of the eighth bhumi and above perceive, a world as pure as Sukhavati.
The key discrepancy between sutra and tantra lies in their meditation practice. Many of the practices are completely different, and naturally so are their results and the speed of attaining such results.
The tantric view, albeit not unprecedented, still differs from sutra to a certain extent. For example, although both explain the concept of emptiness and luminosity, we first need to distinguish between (subjective) realization and (objective) emptiness or luminosity.
The subjective enlightened state means “that which knows” in Buddhist terminology. Objective emptiness has nothing to do with one’s realization. Whether one is enlightened or not, all mental and physical phenomena are empty of self-nature. This in Buddhist terminology is called the “object” or “that which is known.” From the objective point of view, the idea of emptiness is the same in both sutra and tantra. However, on the paths of accumulation and preparation, sutra and tantra differ in terms of the view of emptiness and luminosity in the subjective enlightened state. Upon entering the path of seeing, this difference disappears and the two are in agreement. Therefore, sutra (exoteric Buddhism) and tantra (esoteric Buddhism) actually complement, not contradict, each other. Being exoteric or esoteric only describes the two different perspectives taken to explicate the same doctrine. Both are correct but with different approaches—directly or indirectly—to realize the true nature of all phenomena.
For worldly people who have never studied Buddhism or any other spiritual doctrine, dreams from sleep, magic from the magicians, mirage, and all things, like illusions, which have no real functions or don’t exist in the real world represent relative truth; all things that can be seen and touched, such as buildings, cars, people, mountains, rivers, etc. are ultimate truth. Prior to learning Buddhism, we also held the same view that material things like money, food, clothing, etc. are the only real necessities in life. Dreams and fantasies are not of much help to us, so they are relative truth. This is relative truth and ultimate truth at the lowest level.
In Theravada, it is common knowledge that gross matter (in terms of physical phenomena) and coarse thoughts (in terms of mental phenomena) are deemed relative truth. The indivisible moment of consciousness or the indivisible particle is ultimate truth.
In Yogācāra, all that appear to us as matter, or that seem like matter to us, are considered relative truth. They are only creations of the mind and do not actually exist. The all-creating mind is ultimate truth. Mind in this context is the alaya consciousness; it is substantial and existent.
This view of the mind is the biggest and only mistake in Yogācāra. Aside from this, its views on the external world being the product of mind or the mind itself, on the six paramitas, the four ways of gathering sentient beings, the five paths, the ten bhumis, buddhahood, and so on are all good and acknowledged by the Madhyamaka school as well.
In Madhyamaka, emptiness is ultimate truth. All matter after thorough analysis are found to be empty of inherent existence, truly vacuous; physical phenomena clearly do not exist, but in the state of ordinary sentient beings, these illusory manifestations are real. This illusory, dream-like world is relative truth. Madhyamaka further divides relative truth into correct and incorrect relative truth.
Correct relative truth refers to karma, samsara, and so forth. Although they don’t exist from the point of view of emptiness, mind and matter do exist in the mundane world. Incorrect relative truth primarily refers to the notion that matter actually exists.
Ordinary people’s ultimate truth is Theravada’s relative truth; Theravada’s ultimate truth is Yogācāra’s relative truth; Yogācāra’s ultimate truth is Madhyamaka’s relative truth; and Madhyamaka’s correct relative truth is Vajrayana’s incorrect relative truth.
For example, without an understanding of Madhyamaka, an ordinary person takes anything he or she sees as real and existing. This is deemed incorrect relative truth because even in the mundane world, no inherently existent mind or matter can be found; all are illusory manifestations. Therefore, it is an incorrect view to acknowledge any phenomenon as truly existing, hence the designation of incorrect relative truth.
Now the most important point is to understand Vajrayana’s relative and ultimate truth. In Vajrayana, ultimate truth comprises two parts. Emptiness is one part of ultimate truth; the doctrine of emptiness elucidated in the Madhymaka treatises such as Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Introduction to the Middle Way, and so forth is completely accepted and deemed true reality. The luminous mind, as set forth in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, is the other part of ultimate truth. Vajrayana combines the essential points of the second and the third turning of the wheel of Dharma to establish ultimate truth. Apart from this, there is no stand-alone ultimate truth that is totally unrelated to the second and the third turning of the wheel of Dharma.
To explain this in two parts is only for ease of understanding. There is in fact only one ultimate truth—luminosity is emptiness, emptiness is luminosity, they are one and inseparable. tathāgatagarbha, at once luminous and void, is the nature of mind, the original face of reality, primordial wisdom.
The practice of Dzogchen, or Great Perfection, has many levels. At the lower level, it is called bodhicitta, primarily absolute bodhicitta; at the higher level, it is called primordial wisdom. Primordial wisdom, bodhicitta, tathāgatagarbha, buddha nature, emptiness, Mahamudra, Mahamadhyamaka, and so forth are different names for the same thing. In sum, this is ultimate truth in Vajrayana.
For instance, sutra generally maintains that as long as we perceive the impure phenomena around us, no matter if they are people or buildings, as illusory with no self-nature, it is correct relative truth. But Vajrayana takes the view that the world we see is incorrect—we have never seen the true face of ultimate reality, not even the true face of relative reality. The external world that we see is actually the mandala of the buddhas. In Vajrayana, the mandala of the buddhas is correct relative truth.
Please note that although sutra often speaks of emptiness and clear light as well, this view of the mandala of the buddhas is never mentioned, nor will it ever be mentioned. According to sutra, upon reaching the state of the eighth-bhumi bodhisattva, when the mind is pure enough, the world around us will naturally turn into pure phenomena. But still, this is a rather unfamiliar and unexpected state; sutra has never provided any method to attain this state. Tantra, on the other hand, offers the practice of purification, that is, the generation stage, to quickly accomplish this goal. Furthermore, in the view of tantra, it is not that phenomena are purified via such practice but they are inherently pure in the first place. What the eighth-bhumi bodhisattvas perceive is, like the nature of mind, something we cannot see now but it is the true state of reality at the present moment.
According to tantra, not only the nature of mind is luminosity and emptiness combined, but impure phenomena that appear to us in relative reality are also not impure. Impure phenomena are the product not of cognitive analysis but our perception; however, our perception is regularly fraught with problems, hence what is perceived is a mistaken view of reality. Sutra maintains the problem lies not with our perception but with our attachment to perceived reality.
These views are presented and explicated in the first chapter of the Guhyagarbha Tantra; detailed explanations on how the mundane world can be the mandala of the buddhas are given at the same time. To someone who is trained in sutra but not in tantra, ultimate truth in sutra is irrefutable, ultimate truth in tantra is very complete in itself. However, in terms of correct relative truth, there are differences between the two traditions, which some may find difficult to comprehend.
To people in general, seeing a person is one thing, seeing the mandala of a buddha is quite another. Could this person be in fact a buddha? If the answer is no, then how should we understand the idea that the mundane world is actually the mandala itself? To help clear these doubts, I shall borrow a paragraph from the first chapter, “The Purification of the Buddha Field,” in the Chinese edition of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. It is said in the sutra not only the nature of mind is luminosity and emptiness combined (this is nothing new as many other scriptures also state the same) but also the world we are in today is a pure world, except that we don’t see it.
The following discourse took place before this paragraph. In an assembly of bodhisattvas, Sakyamuni Buddha said to everybody, “When the mind of a bodhisattva is purified through learning the path of Dharma, the realm of the bodhisattva is also purified; when the mind is not pure, the realm of the bodhisattva cannot be pure either.” Upon hearing the Buddha’s words, the Venerable Sariputra through the blessing of the Buddha raised a thought: This being the case, could it be the Buddha’s mind was impure while cultivating the bodhisattva path, since his realm, the Saha world, is so impure? Knowing this thought on Sariputra’s mind, the Buddha carried on a very interesting conversation with him.
The Buddha said, “What do you think, Sariputra? A blind person cannot see the sun or moon, is this the fault of the sun and moon, or the blind person?” Sariputra replied, “No, it is not the fault of the sun and the moon. The fault lies with the blind. The sun and the moon are quite clear. Just the blind cannot see them.”
The Buddha declared, “Likewise, Sariputra, sentient beings do not see the splendor and purity of the buddha field of the Tathagata due to their own afflictions. The Tathagata is not at fault. It is sentient beings who are impure, not the Tathagata. The realm of the Tathagata is very pure, you just don’t see it.”
At this point, an Elder from another universe, with long coils of hair on top of his head, kind of holy-looking, interrupted and said, “Sariputra, please do not think or talk this way. Stop saying the realm of Sakyamuni Buddha is not pure because I see it as pure as the palace of Mahesvara in the form realm.”
The Elder said, “Respectful One, it is your own discriminating mind. As you have not yet gained the wisdom of the Buddha, the world appears to you impure. Actually, Sariputra, there is no difference between sentient beings and bodhisattvas. Only when the mind is pure can one gain the wisdom of the Buddha and see the pure realm of Sakyamuni Buddha.”
Thereupon, the Buddha pressed the ground with his toes and everyone there saw a multitude of universes adorned with myriads of splendid jewels as glorious as the buddha field of the Jewel Adornment Buddha, a realm full of infinite merit and as pure as Sukhavati (nothing in this buddha field is defiled).
Besides being amazed by this phenomenal sight, the audience exclaimed with wonder when they discovered that every one of them was sitting on a lotus throne. At the time, the people in the audience had not yet completely eradicated their defilements. So, by definition, they were not supposed to see the pure buddha field at all. However, helped by the Buddha’s inconceivable divine power, they could all see the true reality of the world instantly.
The Buddha told Sariputra, “For the moment, just look at the innate purity of this buddha field!” Sariputra said, “Ah, Blessed One! I have never seen nor heard of such a scene. The buddha field of Sakyamuni Buddha that I see today is entirely pure.”
Then the Buddha gave an analogy, “Just like the celestial beings all sitting at the same place, using the same ornamented bowls to eat the same food, how the food tastes may vary greatly according to each one’s own merit. Likewise, Sariputra, if one’s mind is pure, one can see the glory of the pure buddha field.” When the Buddha finished talking, many in the audience aroused bodhicitta and realized emptiness right then and there.
The Tibetan version and the Chinese version of this section of the sutra are exactly the same and both translations are also very good. In this section, it is explained that not only the nature of mind is at once luminous and empty, but also all phenomena that we see are pure, even from the standpoint of relative truth—the body of sentient beings is endowed with the thirty-two excellent signs of a buddha and the worlds around us are all buddha fields. We don’t see them as such because we have not yet learned and practiced the Dharma.
In order to reach this state sooner, we ought to speed up our practice. The best and the fastest way is through the practice of the generation stage, which is not taught at all in sutra. The sutric teachings only tell you that eventually the pure realms will be seen and buddhahood attained by engendering bodhicitta, accumulating merit, and cultivating the view of emptiness for an extremely long period of time. Nothing more is said.
Please note what Sakyamuni Buddha said above is crucial. The Buddha did not say this to just anybody. All followers of the Buddha should acknowledge this point. It does not matter whether one practices sutra or tantra; as long as one professes to be a Mahayana practitioner, one must acknowledge the teachings in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. A person who rejects the words of the Buddha is not considered a Buddhist.
To someone who is adept in the thought and practice of sutra and tantra, and also good at comparing and contrasting their respective views, sutra and tantra not only do not contradict, but rather complement each another. Sutra also talks about the view of pure perception, but only lightly, and does not provide any corresponding method for practice. To rush followers of sutra to accept the uncommon tantric views would only confuse more than enlighten them.
We normally do not want to spend too much time or effort to read and understand the Tripitaka and various Buddhist scriptures. The fact is that if we had read these sutric scriptures, we would have understood that the uncommon view of Vajrayana—such as sentient beings and various buddhas, the mundane world and the pure realm are one and the same, and so on—are actually distilled from the contents of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra and made more refined in terms of profundity. Besides this, there is really nothing new in Vajrayana that is unacceptable.The one feature that points to the superiority of tantra over sutra is the incisive explanation of the concept of pure perception, which sutra only provides in general terms. For example, tantra explains precisely what the five aggregates and the three poisons of mind will be transformed into respectively when the world looks pure, while nothing of the kind can be found in either the texts or the transmissions of sutra. Another feature of tantra is that it also provides the method to cultivate the view of pure perception.
Although there are differences between sutra and tantra, we should never think they are contradictory; even among the schools of sutra, discrepancies exist, such as between Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, as well as Mahayana and Theravada. The fact is Yogācāra resolves the questions that Theravada fails to answer; the inconsistency in the Yogācāra discourse that the school cannot fix on its own is ultimately resolved by Madhyamaka. Therefore, the more advanced the school, the more complete is its view. Still, the various schools essentially complement rather than contradict one another.
Although the Guhyagarbha Tantra is classified as a Mahayoga tantra, it contains a substantial amount of the contents in Anuyoga and Atiyoga. It is in fact the foundation of the corpus of Nyingma scriptures, of which the rest are all its branches. If we want a comprehensive understanding of Vajrayana, we must learn the Guhyagarbha Tantra.
However, there is only one Chinese translation of the Guhyagarbha Tantra so far done by Khenpo Sodargye, a commentary by Ju Mipham entitled Essence of Clear Light. Overall, the commentary gives quite a clear explanation of the tantra but not in sufficient detail. As far as I know, presently almost none of the other Chinese translations that pertain to the tantra provide explanations in any detail. But this is not a big problem. One should just learn whatever there is to learn. Normally, it is better to teach tantra to those who have already generated renunciation and bodhicitta. But judging from the current situation with most people, the wait can be very long indeed.
Knowing life is impermanent and human birth is precious, it is most unfortunate that many practitioners have great faith in tantra but know almost nothing about its views and ideas. This is why I have decided to give an overview of the Vajrayana first. As for the actual practice, once genuine renunciation and bodhicitta are generated, we can begin to learn some of the practices of the generation stage and the completion stage without marks, that is, the practices associated with Mahamudra and the Great Perfection. The practice of the completion stage with marks mainly refers to practices known collectively as “winds, channels, and essences”; it is a rather complicated system of practices which we hardly employ nowadays. Naturally, one should not assume the preliminaries are no longer necessary now that one can hear the tantric teachings.
Without the preliminary practice and the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta, the advanced teachings will not be helpful and may actually do you more harm than good. If I only say to you, “Vajrayana practices are very profound and extraordinary. Complete your preliminary practice as quickly as possible so as to move on to the main practice of Great Perfection.” It will give you a target, something to look forward to, and inspire you to work harder on your preliminary practice. On the other hand, if I were to disregard the proper order and teach the five preliminary practices along with all other Vajrayana practices, you would be confused and unable to grasp the essence therein. With no sense of accomplishment and little to look forward to, you may abandon the preliminary practice. Therefore, I believe it is crucial that everyone starts from the very beginning, first with the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta. Absent the preliminary practice, nothing can be accomplished at all.
Those who have completed the inner preliminaries once ought to repeat them again, with the focus on bodhicitta, Vajrasattva, and Guru Yoga. Those who have never practiced the preliminaries must start from the outer preliminaries, beginning with meditation on precious human birth. When one undertakes the tantric practice after completing these preliminary practices, realization can be attained for sure.
Vajrayana is suitable for both lay people and monastics. It is just that the monastics have more time and freedom to focus on the practice. Naturally, if the monastics were to allow themselves to be idle and easily distracted, they would be no different from lay practitioners.
With regard to the Great Perfection, the only way to attain realization is through one’s unwavering faith in the Great Perfection and the guru. Mipham Rinpoche in his Commentary on the Eight Sadhana Teachings of the Assemblage of Sugatas also said the same. It means that of all the requirements for attaining realization of the Great Perfection, these two are the most crucial. However, faith alone without the support of the preliminary practice or bodhicitta still will not yield any result.
People often say that obstacles, such as discursive thoughts, sleepiness, fatigue, etc., appear frequently during meditation practice. One need not worry too much about this as it happens to all beginners. It is always difficult at the start of anything. Buddhadharma is no exception either. As long as one remains determined, the path will become easier and smoother as time goes by.
All phenomena seen by ordinary people are manifestations of the mind. This is consistent with the view of Satyākāravāda (True Aspectarians) of Yogācāra. It also does not contradict the view of Alikākāravāda (False Aspectarians) that external objects are not the mind, but cannot be separated from the power of mind; they are illusions created by the mind. Whether external objects are manifestations of the mind or illusions created by the mind, they are not separate from the mind. If the mind does not exist, external objects cannot exist either.
In other words, all that we see is not external but the cognition of our eye consciousness; all sounds are the cognition of our ear consciousness. In fact, all smells, tastes, and touches are nothing but our own cognition. Other than the cognition of mind, there is no real world out there.
This is also the main dispute between Yogācāra and Sautrantika. Yogācāra holds that an external world cannot possibly exist outside of our own cognition. Just like in dreams nothing really exists, in actual life there is nothing but our cognition. They are all just illusions. However, there is still a difference between dreams and actual life in terms of habitual tendency and causal condition. Because the seed of habitual tendency in actual life is relatively more stable, one does not feel the external objects in life are as illusory as in dreams. What separates life and dream is just a matter of how stable the seeds are in the alaya consciousness. Aside from this factor, the two are completely the same. However, the view of Sautrantika and Sarvastivada is that all phenomena in this world can be explained only if the external objects (matter) exist.
Both schools maintain that when the image of an object appears in our minds, we think we are analyzing something outside. But the fact is no one can really analyze things outside because they are not in any way connected with our minds. For example, when two people try to analyze or explore the nature of matter, one says that all matter is impermanent while the other insists all matter is constant. No matter what the conclusion is, neither one can actually change the true nature of matter. But we need the illusion that the world is how we define it; without this illusion, we cannot think, analyze, or explore anything.
In the sutric literature such as The Ornament of Clear Realization and The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras, it is said that when our minds are gradually being purified and transformed into pure awareness, all phenomena will become the manifestations of wisdom. The tantric view is that even before our cognition is transformed, its essence and its inherent nature are also the wisdom of the buddha. Just as Bodhidharma said in his Wake-Up Sermon, “The unawakened and the enlightened are like water and ice.”
For instance, we usually think that the eight consciousnesses, the six sense organs and their corresponding objects, the five aggregates, and time (past, present, future, and indeterminate time) are the parts that constitute a person, like the components of a machine. There is no independent existence of a person apart from these constituent parts which are all identified as “I”. They are also the objects of attachment to self. In Vajrayana’s view, when we eliminate all afflictions and attain buddhahood, these constituent parts or their true nature at that moment represent the mandala of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.
We normally think that some bodhisattvas are in the east and some in the west. Regardless of which direction, all of them abide in another world, another buddha field far away from us. Accordingly, the Medicine Buddha and Amitabha are not in any way connected, as Amitabha resides in the west realm of Pure Land and the Medicine Buddha in the east realm of Pure Lapis Lazuli. They are very far away from each other and even farther from us, so little connection can be established.
However, Vajrayana tells us that the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities contain all the main yidams of Vajrayana Buddhism and that the one hundred deities are in fact our mind—when one attains enlightenment, this is the state of mind. Naturally, it does not mean all the images of the deities, like the components of a machine, make up our whole being. But through careful contemplation, we should come to realize that all appearances to the eyes are no more than our eye consciousness which is actually part of ourselves.
All the Vajrayana literature basically expounds the same view with only minor differences in some details. On the surface, each of the one hundred deities is an independent entity, thus Manjushri is not Chenrezig, and vice versa. However, this view is not even endorsed in sutra which holds that inconceivable states often appear when bodhisattvas attain realization beyond the eighth bhumi—the virtuous root planted by Manjusri is the same as that by Samantabhadra, the virtuous root planted by Samantabhadra is the same as that by Chenrezig, and so forth. In fact, the virtuous root planted by any one of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas belongs to all of them. This is because attachment to self is eliminated at the eighth bhumi. Although it is not yet buddhahood, nor is the remaining habitual tendency of attachment to self completely destroyed, there is nothing to separate the bodhisattvas from one another anymore as they are on the verge of becoming one. Just like an organic whole that is being separated by outer force, when the obstruction disappears or is removed, it will become whole again. The view of ordinary people is this: I am I; I am not he or she. So one hundred individuals are one hundred distinct entities. Notions such as these come from our attachment to self. When this attachment is obliterated, all people will become one.
If sutra already has such an insight, tantra takes it even further. The view of tantra is that the one hundred deities, whether they are buddhas or bodhisattvas (the two attainments are different), may appear to us in different forms, but they are really one and the same; all are just our own eye consciousness. Because of the different appearances produced by the eye consciousness, we think the deities are distinct entities but this is only our misconception. The truth is that all the deities, both peaceful and wrathful, are present in our minds. Their primordial nature is tathāgatagarbha—the unity of luminosity and emptiness, just like in physics the radioactive ions are capable of emanating waves or light. Before enlightenment is attained, the world appears impure. But the mandala of the buddhas can manifest under the following four conditions: when winds, channels, and essences all dissolve into the primordial luminous mind in the intermediate (bardo) state; when buddhahood is attained; and when certain stability is gained in the generation stage or in tögal practice. This happens because the pure realm of the divine—phenomena emanated from the luminous mind—inherently exists; it is the nature of mind.
There is substantial evidence to prove this point. First, when we die—even if we have never undertaken the generation stage practice or heard the Vajrayana teachings before, we will all have a vision of the mandala of the Hundred Deities at the moment of death.
There is an interval for regression between two life cycles. From birth to death is one life cycle. It is like the celestial bodies—the earth, the moon, the Milky Way, even the whole universe; when their respective cycles come to an end after billions of years, they return to their original state. At the time of regression, all things that move will go back to their origin—everything previously released from the consciousness of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body will begin to recede. The five consciousnesses dissolve into mind consciousness, mind consciousness into alaya consciousness, alaya consciousness into alaya. The alaya also ceases in a flash. At this very moment, the mandala will manifest as vividly as the appearance of the blue sky after the dark clouds dissipate.
These represent relative truth in Vajrayana and therefore deemed the provisional meaning of the Web of Magical Illusion. The ultimate state is one that surpasses this level and arrives at the primordial state, the luminous mind, wherein no color or form of any kind is found. Only this state—the nature of mind, the all-encompassing luminosity of tathāgatagarbha—is deemed the definitive meaning of the Web of Magical Illusion.
There are five pairs of male and female main deities in the mandala, one at the center and four in the four directions of east, west, south, and north. They are called the mother and father of the Five Buddha Families. In addition, there are sixteen bodhisattvas, six Munis (the supreme nirmanakaya buddhas for beings in each of the six realms), four pairs of wrathful gate keepers plus Buddha Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri, a total of forty-two deities.
Samantabhadra, the primordial Father Buddha, represents the all-encompassing luminosity of tathāgatagarbha while Samantabhadri, the primodial Mother Buddha, represents emptiness of tathāgatagarbha. The union of Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri is the essence of all mandalas. Just like gold ornaments come in many varieties, but all are still made of gold. The nature of peaceful and wrathful appearances is the nature of mind—emptiness and luminosity—embodied as Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri. Everything in the mandala is their manifestations, so they do not appear singly. They can be visualized at the heart of the main deities.
The Five Tathagatas
First of all, the aggregate of consciousness (of eyes, ears, nose, alaya, and so forth) is a key constituent element of a person’s self, belonging to the mental aspect. When the aggregate of consciousness is pure, it manifests as Buddha Vairocana. Buddha Vairocana, his consort, and the mandala they dwell in are blue in color, representing the Buddha’s mind or wisdom.
The color of the deities is not symbolic but something that can actually be seen. While in the bardo state or achieving advanced realization in the practice of tögal, the color of Buddha Vairocana and his consort that one can see at the very end is blue. This is true for the color of all other deities.
When Buddha Vairocana and his consort appear in the bardo state, very bright laser-like blue rays emanate from their heart. On top of each ray, there appears a light dot in the shape of an over-turned bowl with dim white light around it; the white light represents the light of the god realm.
There are always two different kinds of light accompanying the appearance of a deity. This discussion here will not deal with every individual deity, but we should know that the bright light which is the same color as the deity represents the radiance of the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom; it is there to guide us. At that point, we must not be afraid but instead pray to the deity. However, because sentient beings have heavy karmic obscurations, most people will be terrified of the bright light. Although there is no reason to be afraid, they just don’t want to see it and will seek desperately to hide from it; some may even pass out from fright. As the habitual tendency to remain in samsara is very strong in the alaya consciousness, they will feel jubilant on seeing the dim light and rush towards it, thereby taking rebirth in one of the six realms. Thus begins the next cycle of life.
At this point, a diligent practitioner can recognize the blue light as the appearance of the nature of mind, the radiance of Buddha Vairocana’s wisdom and compassion. Additionally, with the help of sincere prayer, the enlightened will be able to abide in this state, then dissolve into the heart of the Buddha in an instance and attain buddhahood at last. Such is the way to enlightenment in the bardo state.
We should know that this blue-colored Buddha is in fact our six or eight consciousnesses, nothing else. His primordial nature is tathāgatagarbha. Buddha Vairocana represents a phenomenon that is emanated from and inseparable with tathāgatagarbha.
The second is Buddha Akshobhya in the east. In Sanskrit, akshobhya means “Immovable One.” He is the manifestation of the purified aggregate of form or matter, representing the Buddha’s mirror-like awareness (adarsa-jnana).
Buddha Akshobhya holds a vajra in his right hand and a bell in his left hand. Both father and mother deities along with their mandala appear in white, representing the Buddha’s body because the aggregate of matter is the key element that constitutes the physical body.
The third, in the south, is Buddha Ratnasambhava who manifests the purity of the aggregate of feeling or sensation and represents the Buddha’s awareness of sameness (samata-jnana). His consort is Mamaki who manifests the purity of the element of water. Ratnasambhava with his consort and their mandala appear in yellow, representing the Buddha’s merit.
The fourth, in the west, is Buddha Amitabha who manifests the purity of the aggregate of perception and represents the Buddha’s investigative awareness (pratyaveksana-jnana). Amitabha’s consort is Pandaravasini who manifests the purity of the element of fire. Amitabha, his consort, and their mandala appear in red, representing the Buddha’s speech.
The last is Amoghasiddhi in the north. He manifests the purity of the aggregate of mental formations and is associated with the wisdom of accomplishing activities (krty-anusthana-jnana). His consort is Samayatara who manifests the purity of the element of wind, i.e., the external wind and man’s subtle energy. Amoghasiddhi, his consort, and their mandala appear in green, representing the Buddha’s activities.
Terms such as “object and perceiving an object” or “the cognized object and the cognizing subject” are often mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures. All sense organs (such as eyes) and sense consciousnesses (such as eye consciousness) are that which can perceive an object or that which cognize. All external phenomena like forms and sounds are deemed object or that which is to be cognized. For example, what the eyes see is object or that which is to be cognized; the eye consciousness is the cognizing subject or that which perceives an object.
The inherent nature of all external objects is represented by the Mother Buddha and that of all the internal cognizing subjects is the Father Buddha. The Five Tathagatas are the manifestations of five purified aggregates; their consorts, the Five Mother Buddhas, are the manifestations of five purified elements. The origin of all the deities is tathāgatagarbha.
So far, our discussion is just a general summary without more detailed classifications. For instance, the aggregate of consciousness actually includes the eye, ear, nose, and tongue consciousnesses. What follows is a further explanation of the manifestations of these four after they are purified.
Kshitigarbha manifests the purity of eye consciousness; Vajrapani manifests the purity of ear consciousness; Akashagarbha manifests the purity of nose consciousness; and Avalokiteshvara manifests the purity of tongue consciousness. These four are called the Four Inner Offering Bodhisattvas.
Goddess of Joy manifests the purity of form, the object of eye consciousness; Goddess of Garlands manifests the purity of sound; Goddess of Song manifests the purity of smell (here Goddess of Garlands and Goddess of Song seem to be in the wrong order, but they are represented this way for a reason); and Goddess of Dance manifests the purity of taste.
What follows are the four sense organs. The eyes can see because of a special structure in the eyeball; the ears have a different structure, so they are unable to see form or matter of any kind. Maitreya manifests the purity of eyes; Sarvanivaranavishkambhin manifests the purity of ears; Samantabhadra manifests the purity of nose; and Manjushri manifests the purity of tongue. These are the Four Outer Offering Bodhisattvas. The previous four are deemed inner bodhisattvas because they manifest the internal consciousness while the outer bodhisattvas manifest the external matter.
The objects of the respective four outer bodhisattvas are to be differentiated according to time (both sutra and tantra acknowledge the point that the Buddha’s eyes can see through past and future). Goddess of Incense manifests the purity of the past, which is the object of eyes; Goddess of Flower manifests the purity of the present; Goddess of Light manifests the purity of the future; and Goddess of Perfume manifests the purity of the indeterminate time, which is the object of ears.
These are the six supreme teachers for beings of the six realms. Sutra only professes one teacher—Buddha Sakyamuni; while tantra, particularly in the tantra of the Nyingma school, mentions six teachers. The first supreme teacher, Indra Kaushika, is for the god realm. He manifests the purity of conceit. To deliver celestial beings, he holds a musical instrument, a pipa, because gods enjoy this kind of sensual pleasure.
Why does the teacher for the god realm manifest when conceit is purified? As is normally the case for ordinary people when they seem to stand out in a group, they become proud. Beings in the god realm, compared to other sentient beings, are special in terms of their physical form, surroundings, life span, and so forth. Hence, their pride is relatively more serious.
The second supreme teacher, Vemachitra, is for the asura realm. He manifests the purity of jealousy. Asuras have very strong jealousy. They do not accept their inferior standing to the gods, given their similar life span, surroundings, and enjoyment of pleasures, so they fight with the gods constantly. Vemachitra holds a sword in the right hand and an armor in the left because asuras like battles and weapons.
Here we should learn the meaning of the saying “to be pure without being purified.” This is quite an important idea in Vajrayana Buddhism. For example, the view of Theravada or Sutrayana is that defilement must be eradicated in order to attain the pure state. Vajrayana, on the other hand, says that before attaining realization, defilement is impure phenomenon; once realization is attained, defilement no longer needs to be eliminated. It is not because defilement is purified due to the attainment of realization, but intrinsically defilement is already pure. There is really nothing to be eliminated as all phenomena are inherently pure. This is what the saying means.
Actually, this is the view of Ch’an Buddhism as well. In The Bloodstream Sutra, Bodhidharma makes the same point, “One who sees the nature of mind is a buddha; one who does not see the nature of mind is a sentient being.”
However, we must not think that the elimination of defilement is not required in Vajrayana, that greed and anger are tolerated. Some Vajrayana practitioners who have a particularly serious affliction may be allowed to undertake even the white skeleton visualization practice, not to mention other practices, when all available methods fail or if only this meditation is effective enough to counter the affliction. Nonetheless, this practice is borrowed from other traditions, not Vajrayana’s own practice.
The third supreme teacher, Buddha Sakyamuni, is for the human realm. Among the six mental poisons, desire or insatiable greed is the most serious for humans. Therefore, the supreme teacher for humans manifests the purity of desire without obliterating it.
Of course, in the enlightened state, there is no distinction between buddhas and bodhisattvas. On the surface, however, the ten male and female Buddhas of the Forty-two Peaceful Deities appear sitting in full lotus position, signifying their ultimate enlightenment; whereas bodhisattvas, sitting in half lotus position, denote less than perfect attainment. Normally, Buddha Sakyamuni appears in a sitting position, but here the six Munis are standing. It means the six supreme teachers are actually the ones who endeavor to free sentient beings in the six realms, which leave them no time to sit down.
The fourth supreme teacher is for the animal realm. He manifests the purity of ignorance without obliterating it. Because animals are deluded, the teacher holds a scripture in his hands, which signifies rooting out ignorance with wisdom.
The fifth supreme teacher is for the realm of hungry ghosts. He manifests the purity of selfishness (unwillingness to give) without obliterating it. He holds a container of jewels, which signifies the elimination of hunger and thirst for the hungry ghosts.
The sixth supreme teacher is for the hell realm. He manifests the purity of aversion without obliterating it. He holds fire in the right hand and water in the left hand, which symbolizes dispelling cold and heat in the hell realm, respectively.
But why are the wrathful deities here? In Vajrayana, the most complete mandala is called the mandala of three assemblages. Here, “assemblage” means people gathering in one place and sitting together. The first assemblage is the male and female buddhas of the Five Buddha Families who manifest the purity of five skandhas without obliterating them. The second assemblage is the sixteen male and female great bodhisattvas who manifest the purity of eye, ear, nose, tongue, their respective objects and consciousness without their obliteration. The third assemblage is the four pairs of male and female wrathful gatekeepers that manifest the purity of body, touch, body consciousness, and external condition without obliterating them.
These eight wrathful deities guard the east, west, south, and north gates of the mandala. The word “wrathful” describes the fierce ability to destroy attachment, which is different from its worldly definition. The wrathful manifestations symbolize crushing attachment with fierce anger.
In the teachings, Vajrayana sometimes uses the phrase “to be pure without being purified” and other times “to eradicate all defilements (in order to be pure).” Any eradication, if done, is only superficial. “To be pure without being purified” is what Vajrayana truly means. We must not misunderstand this.
The first pair of the wrathful deities, guarding the east gate of the mandala, is Achala and his consort Ankusha (Iron Hook). Achala holds a wooden stick decorated with a man’s head on the top, which symbolizes overwhelming the Lord of Death, one of the four maras—the Lord of Death brings no death as he is already enlightened without being purified.
The consorts of the four wrathful gatekeepers are Ankusha (Iron Hook), Pasha (the Noose), Shrinkhala (Iron Chain), and Ghanta (the Bell), who represent loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity (the Four Immeasurables) as well as giving, kind words, benefiting action, and working together (the Four Dharmas of Attraction), respectively. Hook, noose, chain, and bell all signify never forsaking sentient beings, taking sentient beings into their care.
The pair guarding the south gate is Yamantaka and his consort Pasha. Like Achala, Yamantaka holds a wooden stick with a double vajra on the top, which symbolizes overwhelming the mara of the sons of the gods, or overwhelming the mara without having to eliminate it. Pasha holds a noose, the same as the rope tied around the neck of a cow or a horse, which represents compassion and kind words.
The pair guarding the west gate is Hayagriva and his consort Shrinkhala. Hayagriva holds an iron chain, which symbolizes overwhelming the mara of the destructive emotions. The iron chain held by Shrinkhala represents empathetic joy and benefiting action.
The pair guarding the north gate is Amritakundali and his consort Ghanta. Amritakundali holds a wooden stick with a double vajra on the top, which symbolizes overwhelming the mara of the aggregates or overwhelming the aggregates without obliterating them. Ghanta holds a bell which represents equanimity and working together with sentient beings.
We should know that the body, as a sense base, denotes the various parts of the body that can sense pain, pleasure, softness, hardness, and so forth. Hair and nails do not have any sensation of their own, so are not counted as part of the sense base.
The body, the objects it comes into contact with, and body consciousness combine to generate an ability to sense the different conditions of external objects, whether they are coarse, smooth, or something else. This particular sensation is called “touch” in Abhidharmakosa-sastra.
The body, external objects, body consciousness, and touch are represented by the four wrathful male deities. Amritakundali manifests the purity of touch; Hayagriva manifests the purity of body; Achala the purity of external objects; and Yamantaka the purity of body consciousness.
Why do the wrathful deities manifest? Sentient beings vary greatly in terms of their disposition and capacity. From the standpoint of freeing sentient beings by skillful means, some may be saved with peaceful means, which is what Buddha Sakyamuni did by turning the wheel of the Dharma three times; others require stronger measures. Some beings who accumulated great merit in their previous lives but lacked bodhicitta and proper dedication and generated evil vows become demons in their next lives, more powerful than regular gods and ghosts. To save these beings, more ferocious means must be used, hence the wrathful manifestations.
In general, if two people (with the same credentials in terms of taking empowerment and keeping their vows pure) undertake the generation stage practice at the same time—one chooses the practice of the wrathful deity, the other the peaceful deity—the one who meditates on the peaceful yidam may encounter some obstacles. This is not a result of the practice, since the obstacles are already there, but because peaceful deities are somewhat limited in their ability to remove obstacles. The one who meditates on the wrathful yidam will achieve faster results and encounter less obstacles, because wrathful deities are particularly adept at overcoming hindrances. This is the advantage of the wrathful deities. If a generation stage practice lasts seven or eight days, the first five or six days should be set aside for the peaceful yidam practice and the last day for the wrathful yidam.
In the early days, Vajrayana was kept very secret in India. It remained so when it was first brought to Tibet, revealed only to its practitioners. The reason for such secrecy was that most people at the time could not comprehend the view of Vajrayana. As people gradually came to realize there is nothing about Vajrayana that is bad, just some skillful means that the Buddha used to help deliver sentient beings, they became receptive to it. Nowadays, with the help of technology, all kinds of tantric images are being distributed everywhere, but no one really understands Vajrayana except a handful of people.
The wrathful deities are presented as ferocious and fearsome, but this ferocity is not aimed at sentient beings but at negative emotions and attachment; it is not to subdue anything other than defilement. On the surface, it signifies their ability to save those sentient beings that the peaceful deities cannot help, namely, the demons that harm other beings.
Actually, they represent a different form of compassion and wisdom, like a different kind of language or symbol, with every utterance signifying the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom. We should look at the profound inner meaning of the wrathful deities, not how they are depicted. Just as when someone uses the finger to point out the moon to you, you should look at the moon, not the finger.
As Vajrayana practitioners, we should understand the meaning behind every detail of the deity’s appearance.
a) Normally, light emanates from behind the buddhas and bodhisattvas, which looks comforting and inspires faith. But coming from behind the wrathful deities is not light but fire which represents realization of emptiness—to destroy cyclic existence in the three realms and burn afflictions and suffering of sentient beings in the six realms with realization of emptiness.
c) The five human skulls on the head of the wrathful deities have threefold meaning: first, like the five-Buddha crown on the head of the peaceful deities, they signify the Five Tathagatas; second, they signify the purity of the five poisons without obliterating them; third, they represent the five wisdoms of the Five Tathagatas.
Why are the skulls dry? As realization of emptiness is like a raging fire that burns everything in sight, the dry skulls represent the heat or the energy of such realization that the wrathful deities have achieved.
e) The elephant-skin upper garment represents the ten powers of a buddha. The elephant has a huge and heavy body, but its intellect is small by comparison. The garment represents the purity of ignorance without its obliteration, or the destruction of ignorance with the ten powers.
The dharma vessels held in the hands of the deities do not necessarily remain unchanged all the time. Rather, they may vary depending on the practice undertaken at the time. Our discussion here is based on a book, not the compilation of all the different descriptions given in the tantras. Different tantras may present different dharma vessels that the deities hold, but clear explanations are available in the respective tantras. They are not contradictory because as a whole the deities manifest the purity of all of one’s body and mind. Although each part of the body or mind corresponds to the manifestation of a particular deity, it should not be a problem either if some of the deities are switched because all deities are of the same nature; they are all the mandala of the buddhas.
The Five Tathagatas and their consorts plus sixteen great bodhisattvas, six Munis, eight wrathful gatekeepers, Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri make up the forty-two peaceful deities.
Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri, unlike the other forty deities, are without any ornaments or clothing as they represent the dharmakaya which is devoid of marks. Samantabhadra signifies luminosity of tathāgatagarbha and Samantabhadri its emptiness. The other forty deities represent the various forms of luminosity and emptiness. Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri embody the essence of all forty deities.
All the peaceful deities look just as kind and dignified as the buddhas and bodhisattvas in sutra. That makes them easily acceptable as they fit in with the image most people expect the buddhas and bodhisattvas to have. However, it is different with the wrathful deities. Without knowing the symbolic meaning behind each look, the wrathful deities are apt to cause misunderstanding, confusion, even wrong views, and subsequently malicious comments.
If the wrathful deities are not deemed buddhas and bodhisattvas, neither should the peaceful deities. If the peaceful deities are acknowledged as buddhas and bodhisattvas, so should the wrathful deities. As they are of the same essence, all are manisfestations of the buddha’s wisdom.
In the center of the mandala is Chemchok Heruka, who is the main yidam of the whole mandala. Heruka means “blood drinking” in Sanskrit. This is the meaning of all the herukas mentioned in the following. Many herukas and their consorts are seen holding in one hand a kapala filled with blood. One should not suppose that a real human skull containing blood is there for one to drink. These are in fact manifestations of the buddha’s omniscient wisdom, only that they appear outwardly as such.
Chemchok Heruka represents the luminous aspect of tathāgatagarbha. All that appear in the mandala are his varied manifestations, but in reality they are never separate from Chemchok Heruka himself. He is like pure gold while other herukas are gold jewelry—different forms, same essence. His consort Krodhishvari represents the void aspect of tathāgatagarbha. All mandalas, inseparable from dharmadhatu or emptiness, are different representations of emptiness.
The two words heruka and krodhishvari are not Tibetan but Sanskrit; krodhi means wrathful, shvari means dakini/goddess. All the following herukas and krodhishvaris are the various manifestations of Heruka and his consort.
a) Many herukas have wings which represent wisdom and skillful means. Flying objects, whether an airplane or any kind of bird, almost always have a pair of wings. As long as one of the wings is missing, flying is not possible. By the same token, for buddhahood to be attained, the wisdom to realize the void nature of all phenomena and the skillful means of compassion must be on hand. That is, only the union of wisdom and skillful means can lead one to buddhahood. Bodhicitta, great compassion, and the five paramitas besides the paramita of wisdom are all considered skillful means. In the absence of either wisdom or skillful means, buddhahood cannot be attained.
b) Heruka has three faces representing the buddha’s body, speech, and mind, respectively—the white face on the right stands for the buddha’s body, the one in the middle the buddha’s mind, and the red on the left the buddha’s speech.
c) The six arms represent the six paramitas. Once buddhahood is attained, it is the path of no more learning, hence the six paramitas need not be practiced any longer; however, the buddhas must have perfected all the six paramitas before reaching buddhahood.
e) Heruka wears a garland of fifty-one freshly severed human heads, representing fifty-one mental factors purified without having to obliterate them. In Abhidharma, mental factors are included in the aggregate of mental formations; these factors are our various thoughts of which fifty-one are the major ones. Everyone has thousands of thoughts, but these fifty-one thoughts come up most often for ordinary people and they are also the primary causes for cyclic existence. The garland of human heads manifests the purity of the fifty-one mental factors without obliterating them, which means the fifty-one mental factors need not be forsaken. Once enlightenment is achieved, they are the transcendent wisdom that adorns us.
The view of Theravada is that these mental factors are defiled phenomena of which some are afflictions and some are non-virtues. All defiled things are hindrances to liberation. One must eliminate defiled mental factors with realization of not-self, and subsequently attain arhatship.
The view of sutra is first, these mental factors should be eliminated through realization of not-self of person and of phenomena; second, having attained realization of emptiness and aroused bodhicitta, mental factors need not be eradicated as Theravada suggests; instead, they can be transformed into the path of liberation.
Vajrayana, on the other hand, thinks that mental factors neither need be eliminated nor transformed as nothing is really there in the first place. Upon reaching enlightenment, we realize all are inherently pure, already the primordial wisdom itself.
f) Under Heruka’s left and right foot each lies a person. What does it mean? In general, the four feet represent the four ways of gathering disciples, while the left foot symbolizes wisdom and the right foot skillful means. The man lying under the right foot represents nihilism and attachment to mind. In The Ornament of Clear Realization, attachment to external objects and to the inner mind is explained. Why is nihilism trampled under the right foot? It is because the so-called nihilism simply defines emptiness as nothingness. The antidote to nihilism is skillful means which itself is a phenomenon. As phenomenon and nihilistic views are contradictory, nihilism cannot stand if extant phenomenon is acknowledged. Stamping a man under the right foot is to suppress nihilism with skillful means.
The woman under the left foot represents eternalism and attachment to external objects to which the antidote is realization of emptiness. Stamping a woman under the left foot is to subdue eternalism and attachment to external objects with wisdom.
Therefore, the image does not depict how the wrathful deity, without compassion, mercilessly tramples sentient beings to death. In fact, even sutra acknowledges the use of skillful means to stifle nihilism and attachment to mind, and wisdom to subdue eternalism and attachment to external objects. They are just expressed differently.
h) The snake ornaments on the body—in white, green, or other colors—manifest the purity of aversion, one of the three poisons, without having to eradicate it. The snake is considered an animal of extreme aversion. Based on the view of tantra, aversion need not be abolished as taught in Theravada, nor transformed according to sutra, as it is already the pure wisdom of the buddha.
i) The leopard-skin skirt worn by Heruka’s consort represents great bliss which is actually great clear light— luminosity of tathāgatagarbha. It also represents the unobstructed activity of delivering sentient beings.
k) Khatvanga, a transliteration of the Sanskrit word, has three prongs on the top and three human heads on the middle prong. The number “three” here symbolizes the purity of the three poisons without having to abolish them.
1. The Five Wrathful Herukas
The first is Buddhaheruka whose counterpart in the peaceful mandala is Vairochana. Buddhaheruka, being the head of the Five Buddha Families, is positioned in front of Chemchok Heruka at the center of the mandala.
We can also visualize based on how the thangka is painted. The center is Chemchok Heruka surrounded by five herukas and their consorts, which correspond to the Five Buddha Families in the peaceful mandala—Buddhaheruka is in front of Chemchok Heruka. At the back are Vajraheruka and Vajrarodhishvari of the east, the wrathful Akshobhya and his consort. Ratnaheruka and Ratnarodhishvari of the south are the wrathful Ratnasambhava and his consort; in Sanskrit, ratna means jewel. Padmaheruka and Padmakrodhishvari at the west of the mandala are the wrathful Amitabha and his consort. The peaceful and wrathful versions, like two faces of a buddha, or two facial expressions of being angry and not being angry, are in fact one entity. Lastly, in the north are Karmaheruka and Karmakrodhishvari. As Karmaheruka represents the activity of the buddha, he appears in green, the same as Amoghasiddhi in the peaceful mandala.
They are related to the twelve ayatanas (sense bases) discussed in both Theravada’s Abhidharma-kosa and Mahayana Abhidharma. One of the sense bases is mind. Mind can be categorized into eight consciousnesses—eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, mental consciousness, manas, and alaya consciousness. The eight females represent the wrathful manifestations of the eight consciousnesses when purified, also the nature of the eight consciousnesses. In the peaceful mandala, the first few consciousnesses manifest as the inner bodhisattvas.
These eight wrathful females not only look intimidating, the objects they hold in their hands are also quite frightening. But once we know the inner meaning behind the menacing appearances, we will actually feel joy, not fear.
The first is Gauri-ma who represents the purity of eye consciousness. She holds in her right hand a wooden stick with a piece of human skin attached on the top, which represents the wisdom of non-discrimination because human skin no longer has any sense or spirit after a person dies. A skull-cup filled with blood is held in her left hand, symbolizing the purity of desire for samsara without obliterating it.
The third is Pramoha representing the purity of nose consciousness. She holds a makara in her hand. Makara is a Sanskrit word for an ancient animal that appears quite often in Buddhist literature, an animal that we won’t find any description or information in the animal database today. Makara is a very powerful sea-creature that never lets its preys escape; it represents not falling into the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism, or samsara and nirvana, but abiding in the freedom from the two extremes. Ordinary people are trapped in samsara, whereas arhats attain liberation but fall into nirvana. Mahayana liberation avoids the two extremes of samsara and nirvana. The dharma vessel held in Pramoha’s hand also symbolizes guiding sentient beings not to fall into the two extremes.
The fifth is Pukkasi who represents the purity of body consciousness. She holds in her hand the intestines of a child. The child symbolizes ordinary people as ordinary sentient beings are as ignorant and silly as children, who cannot contemplate on their own, let alone attain enlightenment. Eating the intestines of a child means not to abandon sentient beings out of compassion, also to lead them to the path of liberation. Naturally, the buddhas cannot possibly be holding real intestines in their hands.
The seventh is Chandali who represents the purity of mind consciousness. She holds a heart in her right hand and a snare made with human intestines in her left hand. The heart symbolizes the wrong view; taking the heart out from a dead body symbolizes eradicating the wrong views of sentient beings.
The eighth is Shmashani who represents the purity of alaya consciousness. What she holds in her hands is even more terrifying—a human head in her right hand and a headless body in her left hand. To the uninitiated, such a sight can be easily misunderstood. Vajrayana followers must learn the meaning behind these images. Otherwise, even those who have faith in the Vajrayana teachings and have also received empowerment may still be a little puzzled upon seeing these. The human head symbolizes attachment to self. Holding the cut-off head in the right hand represents abolishing all attachment to self. The headless body in the left hand represents the wisdom of not-self and no thought, as a body with no head is just a human frame without any consciousness or thought.
The normal order of the eight consciousnesses should be the body consciousness followed by the sixth mind consciousness, then manas (self-consciousness), and finally alaya consciousness. But it is a little different here.
The order of the deities is not always fixed. In some tantras, it begins with alaya consciousness. That makes Gauri-ma the alaya consciousness and Chaurimatrika the manas. This arrangement is based on the order in which the eight consciousnesses arise. Since alaya consciousness is the basis of mind and all mental factors, the other seven consciousnesses can only evolve after the arising of alaya consciousness.
It is not important how the order is arranged. But we should not insist that Gauri-ma must represent eye consciousness and nothing else. Because all the deities are actually of one essence, the purity of any one of the eight consciousnesses or one of the aggregates, such as the aggregate of form, can be represented by Gauri-ma as well as by Chaurimatrika. It is not at all inconsistent.
On the surface, it appears that the wrathful mandala is filled with terror. But behind the fierce countenance, there lies tremendous wisdom and compassion; there is no eroticism, nor is there any violence or aversion.
When we die or when practicing tögal, these deities will appear to us. If at that time, we failed to recognize them as the mandala of the buddhas or, more importantly, the true nature of our own mind, but see them as demons instead, we would lose consciousness from fear and subsequently take rebirth in the lower realms. It is therefore crucial to know these wrathful mandalas.
The Eight Tramen
For example, the things our eyes can see are the objects of the eye consciousness, referred to in Buddhist terminology as form or matter; the sound we can hear is the object of the ear consciousness and so on.
The eight tramen are animal-headed deities of which four are with fangs and four with wings. The ones with fangs are the lion, tiger, vixen, and wolf; the ones with wings are the vulture, black-necked crane, raven, and owl.
The first is Simhamukha (lion-faced dakini) who holds a dead body in her hand. She is the sense object of the eye consciousness, the visible form as specified in the twelve sense bases or the eighteen elements (dhatus). That is, she manifests the purity of all that which come in forms and colors to our eyes. In other words, Simhamukha represents the true nature or the purity of matter. It also means all the things that we normally see are only illusions created on our own account. We cannot see what they really are due to our defilement and cognitive hindrances. The original face of matter is the lion-faced dakini herself.
There cannot be any real animal and corpse in the manifestation of buddha’s wisdom and in the state of buddhahood; they are only symbolic. As described in sutra, every one of the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of the buddha has its specific cause and condition, reference, and representation. They are naturally present, not by means of visualization; each one signifies one of the buddha’s merits. The lion-face represents suppressing fearlessly the attachment to form. The corpse in the hand represents no thought, not-self, and no attachment to self.
The second is Vyaghrimukha (tiger-headed) who manifests the purity of sound heard by the ear consciousness. Not holding any dharma vessel in her hands, she only makes a cross sign with her hands to signify equality, that is, to subdue all inequality with the mudra of equality. All phenomena seen by ordinary beings are inequitable and biased. The luminous and empty state of the buddha is one of absolute equality. The tiger-head represents fearlessness toward the attachment to sound and unbounded courage.
The third is Srigalamukha (vixen-headed) who manifests the purity of smell, the object of nose consciousness. She holds a knife in her hand, which represents the obliteration of wrong views. In general, the knife or axe held by the wrathful deities is not to be used on any sentient beings but on afflictions of greed, aversion, ignorance, attachment, etc. The vixen-head symbolizes not fearing the attachment to pleasant smell and having skillful means.
The fourth is Shvanamukha (wolf-headed) who manifests the purity of taste, the object of tongue consciousness. The object that her eyes are staring at, her hands are holding, and her mouth is biting is again a corpse, which represents destroying attachment to self and attaining realization of not-self. Staring means discerning samsara and nirvana are one and the same. The wolf-head symbolizes not fearing the attachment to taste and succeeding in activities.
The fifth is Gridhamukha (vulture-headed) who manifests the purity of touch, the sense object of body consciousness, or the intrinsic nature of touch. Her head appears like that of a vulture which feeds on corpses in a charnel ground. She holds in her hand a section of human intestines representing attachment or the three poisons. Eating the intestines means taking sentient beings’ attachment to a state absent of conceptual attributes, or eliminating greed, aversion, and delusion—the three poisons are purified without being obliterated.
The sixth is Kangkamuhka (crane-headed) who carries a corpse on her shoulder. There are many explanations for the Sanskrit word kanka, of which the more accurate one is that it is a bird feeding on corpses in the charnel ground in India; its scientific name is black-necked crane. Kangkamuhka manifests the purity of attachment to self, the object of manas; she is the essence of attachment to self.
The seventh is Kakamukha (raven-faced), as kaka in Sanskrit means raven. Holding a sword in her hand, she manifests the intrinsic nature or the purity of the object of mental consciousness, representing the elimination of defilement—defilement purified without being obliterated.
The eighth is Ulumukha (owl-headed) who holds a dharma vessel with a vajra on one side and a hook on the other side, symbolizing the compassionate act to gather and never abandon sentient beings. She is the essence of the object of alaya consciousness.
What is the object of alaya consciousness? According to Yogācāra, it is the entirety of the worlds of non-sentient objects and sentient beings, the reason being that although alaya consciousness does not have one particular object of its own, all the other seven consciousnesses are not separate from alaya consciousness; they are the different forms of alaya consciousness. Therefore, it can be said that the objects of the seven consciousnesses are also the object of the alaya consciousness. Ulumukha manifests the purity of the sentient world and the non-sentient world as a whole.
Guarding the east gate is Ankusha (horse-faced), also called Iron Hook, who holds an iron hook in the right hand, representing the compassion to guide samsara to nirvana. At the south gate is Pasha (sow-faced) who holds a noose in her right hand, representing the perfect combination of wrong views and wisdom into one. Guarding the west gate is Shrinkhala (lion-faced), also called Iron Chain, who holds an iron chain in her right hand, representing the defeat of ignorance. Ghanta (snake-faced), guarding the north gate, holds a vajra bell in the right hand, representing the five poisons purified as the wisdom of the buddha; a skull-cup filled with fresh blood is held in her left hand, representing the union of samsara and nirvana.
In the east, the first yogini is the bovine-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the essence of eye, the sense organ. The second is the snake-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the essence of ear; a lotus flower is held in her hand. The third is the leopard-faced yogini who, holding a dharma vessel with three sharp points that represents the elimination of the three poisons, manifests the purity of the essence of nose. The fourth is the weasel-faced yogini who, holding a dharma wheel, manifests the purity of the essence of tongue. In non-Buddhist tales, the dharma wheel is a weapon used by the gods in battle. Here, it represents destroying the source of samsara. The fifth is the Tibetan blue bear-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the essence of body. An arrow held in her hand represents extinguishing the source of birth, aging, sickness, and death, i.e., the body. The sixth, the bear-faced yogini, manifests the purity of the realm of phenomena (dharmadhatu), the object of mental consciousness. Here, dharmadhatu denotes only the object of the sixth consciousness, which is an abstract matter that can be contemplated, analyzed, and observed. She holds a long noose in her hand, representing the discontinuation of cyclic existence. The last one is the cuckoo-faced female gatekeeper of the east gate who manifests the purity of touch, one of the eighteen elements.
The first yogini in the south is the bat-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the element of sound. The small knife held in her hand represents cutting the root of samsara. Sound being one of the eighteen elements is the same as that of the twelve sense bases, only classified differently. The second is the makara-faced or sea-creature yogini. From the references that I used, she is said to be the essence of mind, that is, the manifestation of the purity of mind (here, mind could mean either manas or mental consciousness as in the eight consciousnesses.) She holds a treasure vase which represents fulfilling the wishes of all sentient beings. The third is the scorpion-faced yogini who is the essence, or manifests the purity, of alaya consciousness. She holds a lotus in her hand, representing absolute immaculacy.
The fourth of the seven yoginis in the south is the harrier-faced yogini who manifests the pure essence of form. She holds a vajra in her hand which represents helping sentient beings to realize the essence of dharmadhatu. The vajra, in Buddhist literature and in tantras particularly, usually represents oneness which is also what dharmadhatu denotes. The fifth is the vixen-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the essence of sound. A wooden stick held in her hand represents destroying all afflictions. The sixth is the tiger-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the essence of smell. Held in her hand is a skull-cup filled with blood which represents worldly desires. To drink up the blood means to vanquish all desires. The last one is the goat-faced female gatekeeper of the south gate who manifests the purity of the element of form. She holds a noose in her hand of which one end is tied with a vajra and the other end an iron hook, representing the act of immeasurable loving-kindness to receive and never forsake sentient beings.
The first yogini in the west is the vulture-faced yogini who, being the object of tongue consciousness, manifests the purity of the essence of taste. A stick held in her hand represents destroying discriminating thoughts and desire. The second is the horse-faced yogini who manifests the purity of the essence of touch. She holds a dead child’s body, representing the elimination of all discriminating thoughts and desire. The third is the garuda-faced yogini who, being the object of mental consciousness, manifests the purity of the essence of the realm of phenomena. She holds a stick as well, which connotes the same meaning as the previous one.
Please note that later on there will be other manifestations of form, sound, smell, touch, and the like. The difference between those and the ones presented so far is that the aforementioned are manifestations of the “essence” of form, sound, smell, and so forth while the ensuing are manisfestations of the “element” of sound, touch, etc. as defined in the eighteen elements (dhatus).
This concludes the description of manifestations of the purity of external objects. The next section will present manifestations of internal consciousness such as eye consciousness, ear consciousness, etc.
The fourth yogini in the west is the dog-faced yogini who, holding a vajra that represents destroying samsara, manifests the purity of eye consciousness. However, we should not equate eye consciousness with the dog-faced yogini. The ultimate reality of eye consciousness is luminous awareness. But between the luminous state of tathāgatagarbha and the defiled phenomena that we now see, there is a third world, a purified state represented by these manifestations. In this third world, the dog-faced yogini manifests the eye consciousness. All other deities should also be viewed as such.
The fifth yogini in the west, the hoopoe-faced yogini, manifests the purity of ear consciousness. She holds a bow and an arrow, representing wisdom and skillful means, respectively. The sixth is the doe-faced yogini who manifests the purity of nose consciousness. The treasure vase that she holds represents fulfilling every wish of sentient beings. The last is the lion-faced yogini, who is also the female gatekeeper of the west gate; holding an iron chain in her hand, she manifests the purity of dharmadhatu.
The four female gatekeepers in both the peaceful and wrathful mandalas all represent the four ways of gathering disciples and the Four Immeasurables.
The first yogini in the north is the wolf-faced yogini who manifests the purity of tongue consciousness. A flag held in her hand represents obliterating evil karma of sentient beings. The second is called the grass frog yogini. The Asiatic grass frog is a species that can live in an environment that is thirty degrees below zero. She manifests the purity of body consciousness. The lamp held in her hand represents dispelling ignorance of sentient beings with the light of wisdom. The third is the sow-faced yogini who manifests the purity of mind consciousness. The noose she holds is tied on both ends with a fang, which represents samsara being bound by dharmadhatu and disappearing into dharmadhatu, or samsara being really one and the same with dharmadhatu and nirvana.
In the following, we shall return to the description of the manifestations of form, sound, smell, and so on, but not of their essence as previously described. The manifestations will be slightly different here as they are of the form, sound, smell, and so forth of the eighteen elements.
The fourth yogini in the north is the crow-faced yogini who manifests the purity of form element. The body of a dead child that she holds represents the essence of all phenomena being no thought, no conception, and no attachment. The fifth is the elephant-faced yogini who manifests the purity of taste element (the sound element was mentioned earlier). She holds the body of a dead grown-up, which likewise represents notions like not-self and the pure state. The sixth is the snake-faced yogini who manifests the purity of smell element. She holds in her hand a snake noose—the body of a snake is the noose with a snake head on each end—that represents guiding aversion into dharmadhatu. It is said that among all the animals, the snake harbors the most serious tendency to aversion. The seventh is also the snake-faced yogini, also the north gatekeeper, who manifests the purity of heat or fire (one of the five elements). A double vajra held in her left hand and a bell in her right hand represent immeasurable equanimity.
The fifty-eight wrathful deities increase to sixty when Chemchok Heruka and his consort are added, but the pair are not counted as part of the fifty-eight deities. The forty-two peaceful deities plus the fifty-eight wrathful deities constitute the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.
The configuration, colors, and style of this mandala are not dictated indiscreetly by any person, nor are they created by some artist at will. Rather, it is a reconstruction of what actually manifests from luminous dharmadhatu.
Why are there so many male and female deities? It is because in the world of relative truth, every object has its own luminosity and emptiness. Various forms of male and female deities manifest in order to represent this aspect of matter. The union of male and female deities signifies the inseparability of appearance and emptiness. That’s all. There can never be any sexual insinuation and violence in Vajrayana Buddhism.
I once saw part of a practice of a male and female yidam in union in Qianlong Tripitaka. Although it was only partial, I had no doubt it was an inner tantric practice, translated a long time ago. This also indicates that there are in fact lineages of this practice in Chinese Buddhism as well. Either way, the union of male and female deities is to represent the inseparable union of appearance and emptiness. There is no other meaning than this. And all female deities represent emptiness.
Nowadays, people who know Vajrayana only superficially often misunderstand the meaning of male and female deities in union. Furthermore, encouraged by those with ulterior motives, these people set out to heap slanders on, to belittle, Vajrayana. Such behavior is totally meaningless. It is at least understandable if one just doesn’t want to know or to learn, but to malign Vajrayana Buddhism deliberately is going too far; from the point of view of cause and effect, it also engenders great evil karma. Actually, anyone who has done a bit of study of the theory of Vajrayana would know the union of male and female deities is not at all sex oriented.
In the old days, before starting a debate, even non-Buddhists would first study the works and thesis of the opponents to understand their points clearly, then try to disprove the opponents’ propositions with more convincing logic. It is no longer the case today. Upon seeing certain images, people who don’t really know the proper view of Vajrayana just go ahead with their own interpretation and follow with vicious attack for no good reason. This is not a real debate but outright slander. If these people have ulterior motives, perhaps by doing this they may get what they want. If however these people are Buddhists, it is certainly regrettable. This situation was anticipated by the buddhas and bodhisattvas long ago; therefore some aspects of Vajrayana have been kept secret as required and not revealed casually to those without faith. Even if one compels such persons to learn Vajrayana, a proper process must be followed.
The mandala discussed here is the same mandala presented in the Guhyagarbha Tantra and Bardo Thodol; its primary focus is the sambhogakaya. Although the teachers of the six realms are also included within, they are deemed the nirmanakaya, who in fact still embody the enlightened wisdom of the buddha, that is, the nirmanakaya in the state of buddhahood itself.
That which is other’s object means a state that sentient beings in their respective worlds can also see. For example, when Buddha Sakyamuni appeared in this world and turned the wheel of Dharma, his disciples then and the Buddha himself obviously were different people, but they could see Buddha Sakyamuni in person. This is the case of being other’s object. According to sutra, before attaining buddhahood, not even pure phenomena seen by the bodhisattvas of the eighth bhumi are deemed one’s own object; they are still other’s object.
When a person is alive, the peaceful deities are located at the heart position and the wrathful deities at the brain. The real buddha field is also the same with the peaceful one below the wrathful one. This arrangement remains when practicing tögal and in the intermediate state. As for the visualization practice of the generation stage and a more complete practice of the combined peaceful and wrathful mandala, we should still visualize the peaceful deities at the lower level and the wrathful deities at the upper level.
As for the heart position, it doesn’t mean that all those deities are in our hearts. It is because the chakras are located on the top of one’s head, at the throat, the heart, and so on, respectively, and the most critical among them is the one at the heart where the all-important seed for the manifestation of the buddha’s mandala is stored. When the essence drops (bindu) in the heart chakra ripen and bring their power into play, the mandala of the buddhas will manifest. The central channel that penetrates the chakra actually represents emptiness of tathāgatagarbha. In the fifth bardo of dharmata (Chönyi bardo), the winds gradually enter into the bindu in the heart chakra, taking one’s thoughts and consciousness along with it—all eight consciousnesses withdraw until finally they shrink into the central channel and merge with clear light. In an instant, all obscurations vanish and the inherently existing mandala of the buddhas naturally emanates.
Even though it is said literally in the Guhyagarbha Tantra that the tathāgatagarbha is located at the heart position, the fact is it permeates all dharmadhatu and is not confined to one’s heart. It is just the way we describe it, the way we visualize and meditate on it.
To say that wrathful deities are located at the crown does not mean so many wrathful deities are being kept in the head. Actually, the appearance of wrathful deities in the head chakra is also a projection of the peaceful deities.
On the surface, it seems as if we are looking at a mandala of the buddhas that appears in the space before us. In fact, our eyes do not see it nor is there an external phenomenon in front of us; it is a phenomenon that is within the central channel, which can be seen even with our eyes closed.
It would be extremely unwise to explain, analyze, and judge Vajrayana solely based on its words. To properly explain Vajrayana, only the realized masters of Vajrayana have the authority and expertise. As they have received pith instructions from the lineage masters and gained realization of their own, explanations given by such teachers are not likely to go wrong.
Only Vajrayana truly explains the intention of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. A sutra from the third turning says this: “Suppose a painter paints the whole world—Mount Sumeru, the east continent Purvavideha, the south Jambudvipa, Aparagodaniya in the west, Uttarakuru the northern continent, and the rest of the twelve continents—on a piece of cloth the size of one billion world-systems or a great trichiliocosm. Then another person uses magic to shrink the painting down to a size that can fit into a sesame seed or a particle. From the outside, it looks no bigger than a sesame seed, but inside it contains the whole of the universe with Mount Sumera and the continents.” Likewise, it is never evident from the outside that the body of an ordinary person contains within it the wisdom of the buddha, but a person’s mind does in fact possess such wisdom. Sutra does not refer to it as the mandala of the buddhas, only as luminous awareness—the buddha’s perfect merit. Tantra, however, points out explicitly which deities correspond to the five aggregates, the twelve sense bases, and the eighteen elements as well as how each deity constitutes the mandala.
As mentioned before, the mandala discussed here is based on the Guhyagarbha Tantra and Bardo Thodol. There are other types of mandalas in Vajrayana that may have deities numbered in the hundreds, even thousands. But the foundation of all the tantras of Nyingmapa is the Guhyagarbha Tantra; in this, as in Bardo Thodol, the mandala has one hundred deities. Actually, no matter how many deities there are, they are all manifestations of the buddha’s widsdom.
These one hundred deities are not made to appear by some sort of practice but inherent in all of us. From the standpoint of all phenomena being inherently pure, the five aggregates, the twelve sense bases, and the eighteen elements may look defiled on the surface, but their essence in fact is always the mandala of the buddhas.
Whether they are inherently pure or purified through the elimination of defilement, the forty-two peaceful deities and the fifty-eight wrathful deities are really just our own five aggregates, the solid, liquid, and gaseous matter, the eight consciousnesses and their objects, etc. We do not see them because of our own defilement. Once we attain realization or gain stability in the generation stage practice, the mandala of the buddhas will appear to us.
There are two mandalas in the Guhyagarbha Tantra. The first is the mandala of absolute truth and the second the mandala of relative truth or the partially revealed truth. Our discussion here is on the mandala of relative truth. The ultimate mandala, the one that reveals the whole truth, is the nature of all phenomena (the five aggregates, the twelve sense bases, the eighteen elements, the sentient and the non-sentient worlds, etc.)—the luminous awareness of tathāgatagarbha. But besides emptiness and luminosity, all things in the world also appear as impure phenomena and relatively pure phenomena.
The impure is the world we see, which is the illusory manifestation of clear light, created by tathāgatagarbha. The world is perceived as being impure because our minds are not pure, not because worldly things are inherently impure.
Impure phenomena can also be classified into six levels: the beings in the hell realm see the most impure karmic phenomena, the hungry ghosts see the next less impure level, then the animals, humans, asuras, and gods, respectively.
The mandala just discussed is one in the buddha’s own object, which is basically what the bodhisattvas of the eighth bhumi also see. As these bodhisattvas are still somewhat affected by their remaining cognitive hindrance, the mandala that they see is still not quite the same as that of the buddha’s own object.
The Guhyagarbha Tantra speaks of seven aspects of absolute truth: that of dharmadhatu, wisdom, and result. Absolute truth of result contains the buddha’s enlightened body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity.
Absolute truth of dharmadhatu is great emptiness, expounded in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, devoid of any attachment, conceptual elaboration, and delusion. This is Madhyamaka’s definition of dharmadhatu as well as that of Vajrayana. Absolute truth of wisdom refers to clear light, elucidated in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma. Absolute truth of result denotes the buddha’s enlightened body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity inherent in all sentient beings.
The enlightened body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity are neither of the nirmanakaya nor the sambhogakaya, i.e., deities with heads, limbs, shapes, and colors as mentioned above, but that of the dharmakaya and are therefore without marks. It is a special function or merit of the luminous mind which in fact already possesses the body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity of the dharmakaya. Both sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya are but images appearing from dharmakaya. The real buddha is the buddha’s dharmakaya.
The reason tantra is also called the Vajra Vehicle is to indicate ground and fruition are one and the same, just like the vajra itself represents oneness.
The Guhyagarbha Tantra further sums up the seven aspects of absolute truth into two: absolute truth of purity and equality. Absolute truth of purity refers to the luminous aspect, such as luminosity, mandala of the buddhas, primordial purity, and so on. Absolute truth of equality is dharmadhatu because no conceptual elaboration exists in dharmadhatu. What is not equal then? The original equality of dharmadhatu becomes unequal due to sentient beings’ attachment to all the cognizing subjects and the cognized objects—self and others, sentient and non-sentient worlds, samsara and nirvana, etc. When all attachment which is biased disappears into dharmadhatu, it is absolute truth of equality.
Vajrayana emphasizes these two absolute truths the most. They are also the absolute truths that are expounded in the second and the third turning of the wheel of Dharma. The Lankavatara Sutra, a scripture of the third turning, says the external object is mind. From this point of view, the Lankavatara Sutra is a Yogācāra text. But it also says the nature of mind is emptiness and luminosity, stressing particularly great emptiness, maha-sunyata. From this standpoint, the Lankatavara Sutra can be deemed a Madhyamaka text.
Normally the Buddhist scriptures that we see are mostly refutations of the view of Yogācāra by the Madhyamaka masters, such as Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way, Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way, etc. In this regard, Madhyamaka and Yogācāra do have contradictions. However, we must note that in addition to the difference between the Satyākāravāda and Alikākāravāda within Yogācāra, there is also a distinction between the School of Scriptural Tradition and the School of Logical Tradition in Yogācāra. The School of Scriptural Tradition denotes the Yogācāra view presented in the Lankatavara Sutra and the like. The School of Logical Tradition denotes the treatises written by other people later on, such as Treatise in Twenty Stanzas, Treatise in Thirty Stanzas, and so on. Usually, it is the School of Logical Tradition that is refuted in the Madhyamaka texts. We must be clear about this. The School of Scriptural Tradition and Madhyamaka are not contradictory in the first place, at least not on the view of emptiness and clear light; Madhyamaka and the real views of Yogācāra masters like Asanga and others are also not contradictory. However, some Yogācāra teachers, having not gained realization, proceeded to interpret the texts their own way and subsequently established their own sect and rejected other views; they maintained that alaya consciousness is self-existent. It is views such as this that Nagarjuna and other like-minded masters meant to refute.
The reason I mention this is because Vajrayana and Yogācāra have many similarities. Rongzom Pandita once said, “From the standpoint of relative truth, Vajrayana is closer to Yogācāra.” Vajrayana holds that an external object can either be mind itself, an illusion of mind, or a phenomenon created by mind. Whatever it is, there is no external object that exists independently of mind.
There is no other way to validate the view above than to practice. Without practice, one can never understand these viewpoints. To practice, one must follow its order—first start with the four outer preliminaries like contemplating the preciousness of human birth, impermanence, and so on to strengthen renunciation; next cultivate bodhicitta; then rely on the Vajrasattva practice to reduce negative karma, and the mandala offering practice to accumulate merit. Subsequently, there are other uncommon preliminary practices of Vajrayana. After completing all these, the authentic vajra masters in the past would practice samatha (calm abiding) for about three years; lastly they would practice the Great Perfection and, at this point, attain realization with relative ease.
The aforementioned clear light and the mandala of the buddhas also appear during the intermediate state. Those who are proficient in the practice of bardo may thus attain buddhahood in this state. In fact, the whole process and the practice are explained clearly in Bardo Thodol. Everyone should learn this teaching as it is very important.
When we see these deities in the bardo state, we must remember they are not something external, not ghosts or devils, but manifestations of the purity of our own body and mind, just like the images projected on the screen by a projector. Our fear can be dispelled by this knowledge. We are not yet enlightened, but knowing the deities represent the purity of our eyes, ears, nose, etc., as well as the mandala of the buddhas and the nature of mind, and praying to them earnestly, we can still attain buddhahood. As it is said in Bardo Thodol, if one can recognize the yidam deities in the bardo state and abide in it, one may instantly achieve enlightenment. Conversely, if one does not know the deities are the purity of one’s mind, one will be terrified of the shockingly dreadful faces of the female deities and hence miss the opportunity to attain buddhahood.
What does abiding in a certain state mean? Is it to be without thought or to think repeatedly, for example, “this is my eye consciousness”? Neither. To abide in a state, one must have certain realization; in other words, it is always to abide in a realized state. Without attaining realization now, there will not be much hope of attaining it in the intermediate state. Therefore, it is critical to gain realization when one is still alive. Nonetheless, to just look at the images of the deities regularly to familiarize oneself with them and to recall the mandala often will still be of great help when the time comes.
In Tibet in the past, to introduce the mandala of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, some children would be bathed in sandlewood infused water; next they would put on the deities’ masks or paint their faces in the deities’ image, wear specific clothes and ornaments, then be placed on the high Dharma seats. The other people below would look at them through a crystal taped to their eye. The master, sitting by the side, would explain each deity one by one, “When you die, this will appear.... So, get used to it now.”
In order for everyone to understand the light and the dots emitted from the deity’s heart, the masters would pull out in front of the children a piece of cloth about a palm’s length plus four inches wide and place a few bronze mirrors on different sections of the cloth. The cloth would be used to introduce the color of the deity. For example, when speaking of the buddha field of Buddha Ratnasambhava, yellow cloth would be spread over the surrounding area; when speaking of the buddha field of Amitabha, red cloth would be used.
Moreover, by looking at the thangka or model of the mandala of hundred peaceful and wrathful deities regularly and prostrating to the one hundred deities every day, one can also eliminate much negative karma, including very serious trangressions like breaking the samaya vows. According to tantra, this is a very effective way to clear karmic hindrances.
In this Age of Dharma Decline wherein sentient beings suffer from great afflictions, we are lucky the tantric teachings have been kept intact. The process of attaining enlightenment through the sutric practice alone is an extremely long one; therefore, we really ought to take the Vajrayana teachings seriously. If we have started to practice, it is a step in the right direction; results are sure to be attained down the path. If renunciation and bodhicitta are developed, we even have the chance to attain enlightenment in this lifetime through the practice of Vajrayana.
Naturally, even the sublime tantric teachings cannot produce results immediately. So it would be difficult to expect enlightenment within a couple of months or one to two years even. With regard to Dharma practice, we should have a long-term plan not only for this life but also for our next life.
In Bardo Thodol, there are also some quite important aspiration prayers which can lend great support if one recites them regularly. We all must face death sooner or later. It would be a pity if one were not mentally prepared.
In the 1920s, an American scholar came to the East to search for the essence of spirituality and stumbled upon the teaching of the intermediate state. In 1927, through the efforts of Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (translator) and W. Y. Evans-Wentz (editor), Bardo Thodol (also known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State) was published in the United States and has since become the most influential Tibetan Buddhist text in the English-speaking world. The book includes a foreword by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who wrote:
‘…the Bardo Thodol offers one an intelligible philosophy addressed to human beings rather than to gods or primitive savages. Its philosophy contains the quintessence of Buddhist psychological criticism; and, as such, one can truly say that it is of unexampled superiority.’
‘They are so detailed and thoroughly adapted to the apparent changes in the dead man’s condition that every serious-minded reader must ask himself whether these wise old lamas might not, after all, have caught a glimpse of the fourth dimension and twitched the veil from the greatest of life’s secrets.’
‘The Bardo Thodol began by being a “closed” book, and so it has remained, no matter what kind of commentaries may be written upon it. For it is a book that will only open itself to spiritual understanding, and this is a capacity which no man is born with, but which he can only acquire through special training and special experience.’
If the whole of Vajrayana were to be deemed Hinduism, many excellent views in sutra would also be deemed the same. According to Nagarjuna, dependent origination is a concept unique to Buddhism, but dependent origination is also a subject regularly taught in Vajrayana. In addition to the view of emptiness, Vajrayana upholds the central topic of prajnaparamita of the second turning, and clear light of tathāgatagarbha set forth in the important texts of the third turning such as Treatise on the Sublime Continuum (Uttaratantra) and In Praise of the Dharmadhatu. It just demonstrates that the view of Vajrayana and that of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are in sync on many subjects. Given this, wouldn’t Madyhamaka and Yogācāra be considered Hinduism as well?
If the most significant, the most essential points of Vajrayana were deemed Hinduism, the aforementioned seven aspects of absolute truth or the two absolute truths of purity and equality, the most crucial viewpoint of Vajrayana, would all be considered tenets of Hinduism. Then, what else is there to distinguish Buddhism from others? Nothing. If luminosity and emptiness were all counted as views of Hinduism, it would be a slander against not only Vajrayana but also Buddhism as a whole.
Undeniably, some tantric terminologies are somewhat similar to that of Hinduism or other non-Buddhist systems of belief, but it doesn’t mean anything as sutra also has many terms that are similar to the other systems. It is true that on the surface the terminologies from both sides look very much alike. Without in-depth knowledge of both systems, a person cannot possibly make the distinction.
Once Atisha also said, “If I don’t go back, I’m afraid there won’t be anybody in India who can really tell the difference between Buddhist and non-Buddhist ideas.” One can only imagine the degree of difficulty therein.
Shantarakshita, Kamalasila’s master, used many terms borrowed from the non-Buddhist texts at the end of his Madyamakalandara, terms such as signlessness, clear light, free from all conceptual elaborations, inconceivable, etc. that are very similar to the Buddhist version. There is no way a regular Buddhist can detect the flaws or differences in the meaning of these terms.
The original plan of some of these people was to assign Vajrayana to the non-Buddhist camp, but by doing that they also inadvertently assigned their own views to the other side. It is definitely a big mistake to assert Vajrayana is a non-Buddhist belief only because they have similar terminologies. These people have never studied the Vajrayana teachings systematically; by drawing a rash conclusion, they slander the Dharma and commit evil karma themselves. There is no benefit to the Dharma or to sentient beings.
According to Maitreya, the karma of committing any of the five hellish deeds can still be purified by repentance through genuine Dharma practice; however, if genuine Dharma is vilified, there is no way to repent any more.
It is also said in The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras by Maitreya that hatred cannot be directed at even insentient objects like a stone, a wall, or a house. Thus, to slander the Dharma without knowing anything about it is all the more reprehensible. If one doesn’t understand a teaching, one should neither praise nor criticize it.
First, other than going to the temples to worship the Buddha or reading some scriptures at home, many never concern themselves with questions like liberation or contemplative practice. Some don’t even know what meditation is. The so-called practice that some claim to be doing comes down to merely asking for empowerment of Jambhala or praying to Jambhala, the god of wealth. In fact, all is done for gaining health, longevity, wealth, and so on instead of liberation.
Second, everybody likes to receive empowerment, but it is very serious downfall if one never learns what the samayas are and fails to observe them after receiving empowerment. An analogy between Vajrayana and an airplane makes a good point: To practice Vajrayana is like taking an airplane. It brings you to your destination faster. But if the plane crashes, you die. Sure, results can be had faster through Vajrayana practice, but so is the possibility of going to vajra hell if one breaks the samayas and not repent. Therefore, we must remain highly mindful of the Vajrayana precepts.
Third, many practitioners go everywhere to receive empowerment but hardly ever bother to examine the teacher. Although in Vajrayana practice empowerment is very important, it is even more important to examine the person conferring the empowerment. The situation now is somewhat confusing. Among the so-called tulkus or reincarnate masters, it is hard to say how many of them are real. When meeting someone who claims himself or herself to be the tenth or the eighteenth reincarnation of a certain master, be sure not to receive empowerment from this person too quickly. Tulkus do exist, but the self-proclaimed tulkus may not be true tulkus.
Before receiving any empowerment, it is absolutely necessary to find a truly qualified vajra master through careful examination.
However, one need not be paranoid either and assume anyone with a title of tulku or vajra master is a fraud. The right attitude should be to respect all who wear the kasaya robe because the robe at least is something that was blessed by the Buddha. But to receive teachings or empowerment from any person, one must be careful not to misjudge the person or receive empowerment recklessly.
Fourth, when transmitting Vajrayana practice, some teachers do not ask if one has generated renunciation and bodhicitta but whether the five preliminary practices have been completed. If the answer is yes, then one is deemed qualified to undertake Vajrayana practice. With respect to the preliminary practice, many people do not take the practice seriously when only the process, not the quality, is emphasized. I personally think this is a very bad practice for Vajrayana.
Even worse, some who are ignorant about the importance of following the sequence of practice would tell others who are preparing to do preliminary practice that one can bypass the preliminaries and go straight to the main practice. This results in certain people eventually giving up their preliminary practice.
In today’s environment and education system, people are taught things that are opposite to what renunciation stands for. Under the circumstance, genuine practice cannot take place when the preliminary practice is abandoned and, as a result, renunciation and bodhicitta are not generated.
We are usually unable to tell if our negative karma has been reduced by undertaking the practice of penitence. Some signs in our dreams may be the most we can hope for, but it is still not totally sure. Neither do we know the extent of the merit that we have managed to accumulate. But these are not big problems. The main concern should be whether we have engendered renunciation and bodhicitta, which no one knows better than we ourselves. Actually, once renunciation and bodhicitta are generated, merit will be accumulated and negative karma purified at the same time. We can then set out on the path with ease of mind.
Fifth, some people who are relatively new to Buddhist teachings and practice somehow decide that they want to lead a monastic life. To many Chinese, the impression associated with choosing this kind of path is quite negative. Other than those who really understand what it is about, most people and family members in particular are against it. There have been cases of families thrown into turmoil because of this. It is of course a wonderful thing to lead a monastic life if we have genuine renunciation, as human birth is indeed rare and precious. Nevertheless, it is not a decision to be made recklessly, not until all the right conditions have come together. Before then, we should give up on the idea at least temporarily.
On the other hand, while still leading a secular life, we should not use our job or stress as an excuse not to practice. It is not that easy to encounter Mahayana teachings, even harder to come across the Vajrayana teachings. So, we must seize the opportunity and make good use of our time. Spiritual practice must be integrated with everyday life and work. To be able to strike a balance between the two is key.